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Iraq urges FIFA to lift ban on hosting internationals

Iraq has renovated its football stadiums to bring them up to FIFA standards [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 February, 2018

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Iraq is hoping renovated stadiums and a ban on bringing weapons to matches will convince FIFA to lift restrictions on it hosting international competitions on home turf.

Iraq is hoping to convince FIFA to lift a decades-long ban on hosting international matches after overhauling its stadiums and security, its sports minister said.

Although Iraq has hosted Gulf football friendlies it has not played full internationals on home turf for almost three decades.

Baghdad now hopes the renovation of its stadiums and outlawing of weapons at matches will have persuaded the football governing body to allow competitive games.

The ban has been in effect since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait that sparked an international embargo.

FIFA's ban, covering all but local matches, stayed in place after the American-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

It was briefly lifted in 2012, but a power outage during an Iraq-Jordan match in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil led FIFA to promptly to reinstate it.

Iraq is now allowed to host international friendlies at stadiums in Erbil, the southern port city of Basra and the shrine city of Karbala.

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On February 28, Basra will host a friendly between Iraq and Saudi Arabia - the first Saudi national team to play on Iraqi soil in four decades.

The match marks a warming of ties between the two countries, after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Riyadh last year.

"Politics is present in every domain, and Saudi Arabia has major political weight," Sports and Youth Minister Abdulhussein Abttan told AFP in an interview at the international stadium of Najaf.

"The presence of the Saudi team in Iraq means a lot to us."

Years of insecurity following the US-led invasion and the Islamic State group's occupation of a swathes of northern and western Iraq turned hosting sports events into a major challenge.

But Iraq in December declared victory over the militant group following a three-year battle, and FIFA finally relaxed the ban.

Now, Abttan wants the sport's governing body to lift it entirely. 

"I hope that this (Saudi) match will inspire other national teams to visit Iraq, which will help support our case for a total lifting of FIFA's ban on matches in our stadiums," Abttan said.

"We are also counting on the teams of Bahrain, Qatar and Iran, all of which also have political influence in sports."

While Abttan's efforts to bring football tournaments back to Iraqi soil appear to be bearing fruit, he faces challenges persuading other sports teams to visit the country.

He criticised Lebanon's al-Riyadi basketball club for refusing to play in Iraq in March, on security grounds.

"It's unfortunate to find an Arab basketball club that refuses to play in Iraq for security reasons while there are Arab football clubs that are ready to come and play here," he said. 

He said that while some sports stadiums were faulty, such as in Erbil, "a lot of work has been done… and a lot of money has been spent" to bring them up to standard.

He said he is also determined to tackle the problem of armed men in stadiums.

In January, a supporter of a local team opened fire on the bus of the opposing club, although nobody was wounded in the incident.

Later the same month, Iraq's Police Club, owned by the interior ministry, was banned from playing in Baghdad's main football ground following a brawl between police and stadium guards.

Military officers have been known to bring both cars and weapons into stadiums.

"Nobody could stop them because they are high ranking," Abttan said.

"But now it is different, and in coordination with the interior ministry, we put an end to this situation, which was in total contradiction with FIFA rules."

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